Colorado offers one of the most spectacular North American birding spectacles with the spring lekking season of several grouse species. Churring, gurgling, prancing males strut around their chosen lek, competing with other males to see who can get selected by a mate. Along with this spectacle are the stunning Rocky Mountains and rolling grass prairies that hold an abundance of bird life. Mixed in with these are the cottonwood canyons and pine forests that give us a variety of great habitats to go birding in. Good food, roads, and lodging make for a comfortable and easy trip through this fantastic wilderness.
This trip can be combined with our A Texas Spring and Whooping Cranes tour.
Itinerary (12 days/11 nights)
Day 1. Arrival in Denver
You arrive at the Denver airport. There will be introductions and an orientation about our upcoming trip. We will do some local birding as time allows.
Overnight: Comfort Inn, Denver airport
Day 2. Denver, Genesee, Allenspark, Loveland Pass, Kremmling, Rabbit Ears Pass
We will start the day with some birding at a Genesee Park at the edge of Denver. Some of the targets here are various rosy finches, Cassin’s Finch, Pygmy Nuthatch, Steller’s Jay, Clark’s Nutcracker, Mountain Chickadee, Red Crossbill, and possibly Evening Grosbeak should be seen here, as well as Dark-eyed Junco. We will drive over the mountains through Allenspark, looking for Mountain Bluebird, Townsend’s Solitaire, and Two-barred (White-winged) and Red Crossbills. We will also stop at some open rivers for American Dipper. Then we will also do some birding at Georgetown, checking feeders for all three of the local rosy finches. We’ll then drive from Georgetown to the Guanella Pass to check for White-tailed Ptarmigan before retreating from this high elevation back to Georgetown. If we don’t have luck here we’ll take Route 6 over the summit of the Loveland Pass to give us another chance for White-tailed Ptarmigan and possibly Brown-capped Rosy Finch. We’ll descend down the mountains toward the Dillon Reservoir and check for waterbirds before moving north through Silverthorne. Along Highway 9 to Kremmling there are some good puddles for ducks and open areas for Prairie Falcon. We’ll have a brief stop at the Green Mountain Reservoir, which could yield Barrow’s Goldeneye. In Kremmling, if there are still recent sightings at some feeders in town, we will check them out for rosy finches and other birds. Another brief stop, at Rabbit Ears Pass, will give us further chances to search for mountain bird species. Among the spruce, pine, and aspen we might find American Three-toed Woodpecker.
Overnight: Rabbit Ears Motel, Steamboat Springs
Day 3. Walden for Sage Grouse lek, Hayden
We’ll grab a quick breakfast and head east to look for Sage Grouse on their lek. We’ll need to leave early to make sure we are set up before sunrise, when the birds come onto the lek. From our vehicles we’ll be able to watch the spectacle of these amazing birds strutting around, inflating air sacs, and fanning tails to attract a female. From here we’ll continue north to Walden, visiting the Delaney Butte Lakes and the Walden Reservoir; we’ll be able to find some wintering ducks here. We’ll retrace our steps west, birding to Hayden with stops at Catamount and Hahn’s Peak lakes.
Overnight: Rabbit Ears Motel, Steamboat Springs
Day 4. Hayden for Sharp-tailed Grouse, Black Mountain for Dusky Grouse
We’ll start the day with a check of the Sharp-tailed Grouse lek. We should be able to park off the road and get a good look at these birds lekking away the morning. From here we’ll head to Yampa Tailwaters Preserve to check for the many species of waterfowl like Ring-necked Duck, Common Merganser, and Blue-winged and Cinnamon Teals. We’ll check Boxelder and Narrowleaf Cottonwood, which hold plenty of songbirds along a two-mile trail. We head back to Craig, birding along the way, with a stop for lunch. We then drive north along Highway 13, birding along the way. We’ll end up late in the afternoon north of Craig at Black Mountain in the Routt National Forest, checking for American Three-toed Woodpecker and Dusky Grouse lekking in the road. There are also several Sage Grouse leks along highway 13 that we can check if we’ve missed them earlier.
Overnight: Rocky Mountain Inn, Craig
Day 5. Craig, Rifle, Fravert Reservoir
We’ll continue south from Craig onto Route 13, looking for waterfowl, especially Cinnamon Teal, along the way. At Meeker we’ll head west towards Rio Blanco Lake to check for loons and other waterfowl and then drive south along Route 5 through this wonderful wilderness area, checking for birds along the way. Just north of Rifle we’ll rejoin Route 13. We’ll have lunch in Rifle, then a stop at the Fravert Reservoir to look for Pinyon Jay, Juniper Titmouse, and Bewick’s Wren. There is a very good pond that has lots of waterfowl and both Red-winged and Yellow-headed Blackbirds. We might see White-throated Swift flying about as well. At Coal Creek Canyon we’ll pass the Cameo power plant and head into open juniper country, where we get a chance to look for Chukar Partridge, Say’s Phoebe, Rock Wren, and Black-throated Sparrow.
Overnight: Super 8, Grand Junction
Day 6. Grand Junction, Blue Mesa Reservoir, Crested Butte
We start the day with the breathtaking views from Colorado National Monument. Just a few of the target birds here include Gambel’s Quail, Juniper Titmouse, Western and Mountain Bluebirds, and a possibility for American Grey Flycatcher. We’ll check a few of the local reservoirs near Delta for Western and Clark’s Grebes along with a bevy of ducks, and we’ll also scout the cattails for rails and Marsh Wren. Then we proceed to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park’s Rim Drive road. Here we have another chance to find Dusky Grouse, sometimes seen displaying atop picnic tables! This road offers outstanding views of the canyon. We’ll make our way on the South Rim Drive to the visitor center for some great looks at the canyon. While we may have already seen these species elsewhere, other possibilities here include Golden Eagle, California Scrub Jay, Violet-green Swallow, Clark’s Nutcracker, and Green-tailed Towhee. You’ll also need to keep your eyes open for Mule Deer, Bobcat, Grey Fox, and Yellow-bellied Marmot. Our final main destination for the day is the Blue Mesa Reservoir. This area may hold lots of waterfowl, some gulls (American Herring and possibly California Gulls), shorebirds, Barrow’s Goldeneye, Sage Thrasher, and Vesper Sparrow. Get to bed early tonight!
Overnight: Quality Inn, Gunnison
Day 7. Gunnison
Today we’ll head for the Gunnison Grouse lek. Things you need to know: We will be departing the hotel around 4:45 a.m. as we have to be parked and set an hour before sunrise, as the birds get there quite early. Once at the viewing area, there is no leaving the cars (no bathroom breaks!) until the birds are finished with their displays, perhaps three hours after sunrise. No morning coffee! There is a simple bathroom at the site, and we should be able to use it upon initial arrival and at the end. Also expect cold temperatures. Over the past years, low temps have ranged from 22 to 33 degrees Fahrenheit (only one year was it in the 30s). We’ll be going back to the hotel after we leave here – you may want to sneak out a blanket or two. Bring some of those hand and/or foot warmers (Hot Hands). No flash photography is allowed here either. Other species we may see while enjoying the grouse are Swainson’s Hawk, Horned Lark, Western Meadowlark, Brewer’s Blackbird, and maybe a Gunnison’s Prairie Dog. After a late breakfast we’ll drive to Crested Butte to check for rosy finches. These rosy finches are all based on snow. If it is snowing in the mountains it’ll bring the finches down to the feeders. Otherwise there is only a low chance of seeing them; so we will keep an eye on the weather forecast. We’ll spend a couple of hours up here checking local feeders and have some lunch before driving back to Gunnison. In Gunnison there are a few areas to check for Great Horned Owl, Black-billed Magpie, Lewis’s Woodpecker, Townsend’s Solitaire, and others, before retiring back to our accommodation for the night.
Overnight: Quality Inn, Gunnison
Day 8. Gunnison to Pueblo
If we had no chance with the Gunnison Grouse the day before, we can rise early and try again, but if we did have luck we’ll head east towards Pueblo. On the road to Pueblo we will stop for birding at Monarch Pass to look for more mountain bird species. There is a parking lot from which you will see some unbelievable scenery. As we descend the east side, we will keep an eye out for Clark’s Nutcrackers and crossbills. There are also some spots to look for Band-tailed Pigeon. Other stops along the route will be where there are open rivers – to look for American Dipper. Bighorn Sheep are a possibility as well. Next, we will make a couple of nice stops on Cañon City Tunnel Drive; this gives us a chance for Rufous-crowned Sparrow, Rock Wren, Canyon Wren, and possibly Black Phoebe. Cañon City River Walk has some nice riparian habitat for a large variety of birds like Western Bluebird, Lesser Goldfinch, Audubon’s Warbler, and the red-shafted morph of Northern Flicker. This is a great place to eat if the weather is good. After lunch we’ll continue east to a dry scrub area and the Pueblo Reservoir. Some of our target birds include Scaled Quail, Burrowing Owl, Loggerhead Shrike, Juniper Titmouse, American Bushtit, Curve-billed Thrasher, and Canyon Towhee, with lesser possibility of Western Barn Owl, Lark Bunting, and Ferruginous Hawk. We could also see some species of gulls and water birds at the reservoir.
Overnight: Quality Inn, Pueblo.
Day 9. Pueblo to Elkhart
Now we leave behind the Front Range and enter the Eastern Plains, going all the way into Kansas. The Cimarron National Grasslands are the destination there, but first we will be driving through grasslands along Highway 109 south of La Junta. Prairie Falcon, Swainson’s and Ferruginous Hawks, and Long-billed Curlew are some of the birds we can see along this stretch of highway. We’ll drive through the Cottonwood Canyons to look for Lewis’s Woodpecker, Woodhouse’s Scrub Jay, Chihuahuan Raven, and Ladder-backed Woodpecker, as well as several species of sparrows. We will continue to the Lesser Prairie Chicken blind near Campo, and we should see some of the birds on their lek. Other birds we may encounter in the area include Scaled Quail, Cassin’s Sparrow, and longspurs.
Overnight: El Rancho Motel, Elkhart
Day 10. Lesser Prairie Chicken lek, Bledsoe Ranch for Greater Prairie Chicken, Wray
We can return to a different Lesser Prairie-Chicken lek if we didn’t get satisfactory views the night before. If we skip the blind, we can bird some back roads northwest of town for a variety of sparrow species like Cassin’s, Brewer’s and Grasshopper Sparrows. There should be lots of Swainson’s Hawks too. We’ll need to head north now, as we’ve got a long way to go today. We’ll stop in Lamar for lunch and continue north to Wray, birding along the way at Wray State Fishing Unit for a variety of migrants. Eventually we’ll head to a Greater Prairie Chicken lek to watch their evening performance.
Overnight: Sandhiller, Wray
Day 11. Pawnee National Grasslands
This area of grassland is mixed with short buffalo grass, which is good for McCown’s Longspur and Mountain Plover, and the taller grass for Chestnut-collared Longspur, and there is a possibility for Long-billed Curlew and a late Lapland Longspur. Ferruginous Hawk, Prairie Falcon, Say’s Phoebe, Burrowing Owl, and Golden Eagle are often found here, and while traversing these rolling hills and prairie dog towns we’ll keep an eye out for Pronghorn too.
Overnight: Comfort Inn, Denver
Day 12. Departure
We’ll head to the airport today for our departure.
Please note that the itinerary cannot be guaranteed as it is only a rough guide and can be changed (usually slightly) due to factors such as availability of accommodation, updated information on the state of accommodation, roads, or birding sites, the discretion of the guides and other factors.